Zinedine Zidane became the manager of Real Madrid in January 2016. He faced the task of rejuvenating a squad that had grown stale under Rafa Benitez. Two years later, Zidane faces the task of rejuvenating a squad that has grown stale under his own management.
Real Madrid stumbled to a 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo on Sunday evening. An incisive performance by Gareth Bale — who scored two goals on his first La Liga start since September — applied a thin layer of respectability to a ramshackle performance. Juan Carlos Unzue, coach of the Galician club, reflected after the match: “I’m feeling bittersweet because we did enough to deserve more than a draw.”
Earlier in the day, Barcelona had received what Diario AS described as “a bath and a massage” — a very easy match — against Levante. That extended Barcelona’s lead over Madrid to 16 points — one point less than the gap between Madrid and the relegation zone. Los Blancos have not had fewer points at this stage of the season since January 2009, shortly after Juande Ramos took over the managerial duties from Bernd Schuster.
Real Madrid’s squad was the envy of Europe five months ago. Manchester United and Barcelona both challenged and both tasted defeat as Madrid won the European and Spanish super cups. Gerard Pique admitted that for the first time since arriving at the club in 2008, he felt Barcelona were “inferior” to Madrid. Now, in January, Madrid have limped out of the La Liga title race. They are not mathematically condemned to hand over the trophy, but it is effectively decided.
An infection has crept through Real Madrid. It has strangled the vivacity and electric directness that defined the first half of 2017, replacing it with apathetic football. They have become ponderous and incoherent.
It falls to Zidane to coach his players back into shape, and, crucially, to lift confidence as he did when he succeeded Benitez. Back then, a talented squad needed liberating from a system that did not suit them and did not work. Zidane gave players freedom and self-belief. Titles dutifully followed. Now, however, they appear shackled once again and Zidane has to prove he has the key.
The French coach was flat after the draw in Vigo, as flat as he has been since taking the job. “I’ve got to detect the problem because I’m the one responsible,” he grimaced to the camera, stood before a mosaic of advertiser logos in the bowels of Balaidos. Detecting the problem will not be easy. Finding the solution will be even harder.
Some people have presented the Champions League as a tonic to Madrid’s Liga infection. The glass-half-full arguments go something like this: Barcelona will run away with the league, but there is still a chance to defend the European crown. Madrid shifted up a gear at the start of 2017. Perhaps that will happen again in 2018.
Maybe. But probably not. Better opposition will not rouse Madrid from their stifled, sleep-walking football. They will expose this Madrid team if it continues in current form. Celta Vigo gave an ominous warning. There are tactical similarities between Celta and Paris Saint-Germain — whom Madrid will play in the last 16 of the Champions League. Celta ravaged the Madrid defence with a fluid front-three. Pione Sisto and Iago Aspas fizzed on the flanks and used Maxi Gomez — the barrel-chested striker — as a focal point. The trio exposed Madrid’s emphasis on attacking full-backs and feasted on opportunities to counter-attack. PSG will approach the game in a similar way but with better players. Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe operate on a higher level. Sunday night in Balaidos could prove to be a bitter aperitif before an arduous 180 minutes against the Ligue 1 leaders.
Marcelo suffered more than any other player. “We can’t do any more,” he sighed after the match, stuck in a quagmire between confusion and desolation. The Brazilian is expected to act as an auxiliary midfielder and contribute to attacks. He is also expected to defend the left flank. He can’t do both. And crucially, Casemiro is not patrolling the space Marcelo leaves behind him with the same diligence as last season. Marcelo is also underperforming. He is making poor decisions. Celta Vigo equalised in the 83rd minute after Marcelo attempted a decadent ruleta, failed and lost the ball in his own half.
The case of Marcelo illustrates Madrid’s broad problem: poor individual performances within the context of an incoherent system. Outstanding performances can mask systemic problems. Equally, a coherent system can mask poor performances. But when both combine, the team unravels. Zidane reinvigorated a team that wasn’t functioning when he took over two years ago. He must repeat the trick sooner rather than later.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC’s Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93